A Really Big Shoe

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I am surrounded by hundreds of plastic shoes.

They are big and absurd and vaguely sinister, like boxing gloves designed by Crayola. They come in a riot of brutally cheerful colors usually reserved for daycare centers and Popsicles: lime, pink, purple, red, chocolate, fuchsia, coral, emerald, sage, pearl white, canary yellow and butter yellow, as well as three shades of blue, basic black and khaki. Some are full of holes. Some have gaping "ventilation ports" on the sides but no perforations on the upper. Some have no holes. Others are barely shoes at all, having been extruded from the crayon machine as open-toed sandals or flip-flops.

Just one, I tell myself. Somewhere in this bounty, there has to be just one pair of Crocs that doesn't make me look like: a) an escaped mental patient, b) a hippie gardener, or c) a complete dork.



My shopping consultant, the Shoe Goddess, takes in the display with a sharp but approving gaze. The Shoe Goddess is a clog connoisseur, and she has lusted after a pair of Crocs since they first hit the market, almost three years ago. But she's never found a selection quite varied enough to suit her, which is why we have come to the Pedestrian Shops on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall, the epicenter of the Crocquake. Pedestrian was the first full-fledged shoe store to carry Crocs, which were developed right up the road in Niwot, and the place has done so well peddling them that it opened an extra room this summer just to house its thousand-plus inventory of the little monsters.

"Oh, my," the Shoe Goddess says. "They do have a few pair, don't they?"

The Shoe Goddess wants Crocs, and I figure it's high time to do some journalistic legwork to get to the slip-resistant sole of the whole daffy phenomenon. In August, Crocs Inc. announced plans to go public, seeking to raise as much as $145 million in its initial stock offering. That's a lot of fuchsia boat shoes for a business that just thirty months ago had all of eight employees and was hawking its goods at flea markets and swim stores.

These days, of course, Crocs are everywhere. They are in sporting-goods chains and shopping-mall kiosks, hospital gift stores and bike shops. They are online and off-ramp. Their largest single retailer is Dillard's, but they are sold in more than twenty countries. And, as befits a product originally designed for boats and beaches, the company's largest single market over two years of runaway growth has been Colorado -- lovely, landlocked Colorado, cradle of bad fashion and ungainly footgear.

Whether Crocs belong in chic boutiques, I can't say. But they don't seem to belong on my feet. This becomes obvious when I try on a demure pair of black Metros -- distinguished from the Cayman and Beach models by having the side ports but no holes in the uppers. They bulge alarmingly around the sides of my foot while jamming my toes. I go up a size, which seems to solve the toe problem but leaves the heel strap hanging limply off my ankle. With shoes this wide, I won't need any watercraft; I'll be cruising in my own pair of gunboats.

The Shoe Goddess marvels at their softness. "My feet feel unrestrained," she announces, trying out a pair. "They feel free. They're free to be themselves."

But she, too, is having sizing problems. Her feet are a little too free, it seems. She switches to another pair, then another. "These are huge," she says. "This isn't right at all."

She turns to a man who's restocking the children's section. "Excuse me," she says. "Are some of the models narrower than others?"

The man smiles patiently. He's probably heard that question a hundred times -- today, and it's not even noon. "They're all made on the same last," he says. "They're just a hunk of plastic. Every pair is slightly different."

Emboldened, she returns to the racks. Another female shopper sidles up to her. "I think I saw on the website that one model's narrower," she mutters.

"You want them roomy," the man insists. "If you can feel your toe up against the shoe, it's too small. Of course, you're trying them on at the worst possible time of day. You're just getting up, just starting to move around."

"I've been up for hours," the Shoe Goddess says.

"Is your foot as tired and swollen as it will be at the end of the day?" the man asks.

The Shoe Goddess looks ruefully at her right foot, lost somewhere in the gaping sinkhole of an emerald Cayman. "If my feet ever get swollen enough to fit in these shoes, I'll be in the hospital," she says.

We keep looking. The Shoe Goddess finds nothing that suits her. After much vacillation, I settle on a roomy pair of Metros in navy, the Pedestrian's most popular hue. At $44.95, these are pricier than the basic Beach (a premium for not punching the holes?), and Pedestrian's "sale" price is a few bucks higher than the same shoe at Nordstrom -- but, hey, this is Boulder. I slip them on in the car and we head for the malls, still in search of the elusive "narrower" model.

It is not to be found. The company claims that the Cayman has "a sleek and more slender look" than the Beach, as well as more sizes, but they all seem to swim on the Shoe Goddess. (The Nile model does have a slightly narrower, ultra-suede footbed, but it's an open-toed slide.) One saleswoman tells us that the strap, which can be folded over the top of the shoe, takes away half a size; the secret is to heat it with vigorous rubbing and stretch your heel into it. But nothing works.

At the next emporium, the Shoe Goddess corners an employee and demands an answer to the Great Croc Mystery.

"To what do you attribute the success of this shoe?" she asks.

The woman shrugs. "It's just a fad," she says.

Well, duh. Yet here I am, shuffling through the mall like a kid wearing Gramps's galoshes. My toes desperately seek purchase in the formless void. My heel straps hang down like droopy gangstawear. Ridiculous doesn't begin to cover it; this is some kind of ritual humiliation, a penance for my sins.

I am dork incarnate in clown shoes, looking for my homies, Chuckles and Bozo.

Whatever else might be said about Crocs, their emergence as a major consumer trend is a triumph of marketing. "It's not easy to get fifty million people to think of Suzanne Somers as a beautiful young woman," George W.S. Trow once wrote. Similarly, it's not easy to get millions of people to think of bulbous, neon-hued, unisex clogs as supremely desirable footwear -- or, better yet, as "ultra-hip, Italian styling," one of the "10 reasons you gotta have 'em" listed in the Crocs promotional literature.

Crocs may be as close to an anti-fashion statement as you can make without wrapping your feet in cotton candy. But most devotees probably don't care about fashion one way or another; they're interested in comfort. Crocs came on the scene when the "active casual" segment of the shoe industry was booming -- and rapidly became the epitome of the entire comfy-shoe movement. Goofy-looking, yes, but who cares, as long as they're soft, light and oh-so-inexpensive? Face it: What we have here is the podiatric equivalent of the muumuu.

Yet at their inception, Crocs weren't about fashion or comfort, but utility. Three years ago, company founders George Boedecker Jr., Lyndon "Duke" Hanson and Scott Seamans, all Boulder entrepreneurs, came across an unusual boat clog manufactured in Canada. Made of a proprietary closed-cell resin, the shoe was lighter than rubber boat shoes and more pliant, molding to the shape of the foot, which made it less likely to slip off on a slippery deck. The shoe was also well ventilated and less sweaty than a rubber version, and the resin seemed to do a better job of not absorbing odors. The three had access to venture capital -- Boedecker is a major Quizno's franchisee -- and a few ideas about how to improve the design. They snapped up the rights to the manufacturing process and eventually bought the company, Foam Creations, that made the shoe. Seamans added a heel strap, transforming clog into Croc.

The new company, originally known as Western Brands, began marketing the shoe at boat shows in late 2002. By the next spring, the shoe was winning converts among landlubbers, too. People who spent long hours on their feet, such as restaurant workers and hospital employees, liked the softness and the loose fit. They were less expensive than, say, traditional surgical clogs, and they cleaned up nicely in the dishwasher, eliminating unsightly food splatters and body fluids.

Baby boomers with swollen feet and fallen arches grokked the way Crocs felt on hardwood floors. Middle-school trendsetters tripped on the bright colors. Gardeners dug the fact that you could hose them off.

Sales began to pick up. Until recently, the company has been close-mouthed about actual numbers, but the disclosures required for its planned stock offering reveal that the growth has been exponential. In 2003, its first full year of operation, Crocs sold 76,000 pairs of shoes. In 2004, the figure jumped almost tenfold, to 649,000. And in the first three months of 2005, the company unloaded almost as many shoes as it did in all of last year. Revenue rose from $1.2 million in 2003 to $13.5 million in 2004 to roughly $36 million in the first six months of this year.

Scrambling to keep up with the demand, Crocs has lined up additional manufacturing capacity in Mexico, Europe and Asia; it can now crank out 1.2 million pairs a month. (Fifty-one percent of its shoes are made in China.) It's added colors and additional models, including a resin rain boot and the Islander, a space-cadet deck shoe with a leather upper ($59.99, double the price of the basic Beach) set to debut this fall. It's come up with a line of accessories, including T-shirts, sunglasses, knee pads and "crocsbutter," a "specially formulated polish" guaranteed to restore that otherworldly luster. It even offers an after-market "powerstrap" that "provides an even more exceptional fit when added to any existing Crocs model."

And, just as pilot fish cozy up to sharks, customizers have joined in the craze. One Boulder online entrepreneur is now offering Jibbitz -- doodads you fit in the holes of your Crocs to achieve an even more flamboyant look, like lipstick on a pig. Croc "modification" services were even offered at the last Burning Man festival.

Elaborate theories have been advanced to explain the Croc explosion. One economics newsletter muses that the trend dovetails perfectly with shoppers' general embrace of bold, bright colors -- an expression of consumer confidence, despite war, hurricanes and high gas prices, and in sharp contrast to the earth tones pervasive during the 2001 recession. But the primary economic forces involved are probably a lot simpler. Credit Boedecker, Hanson and Seamans with figuring out how to produce a shoe that's cheaper than comparable clogs, yet every bit as ugly-comfy. The company even slashed the suggested price of the Beach model, from forty to thirty bucks, shortly after it hit the market, guaranteeing that it would be perceived as a remarkable value and encouraging purchases of multiple pairs.

"These guys are very smart," says Richard Polk, owner of the Pedestrian Shops. "The margins are tight. But once you get it right, you can do great volume and bring your prices down. We have a lot of people who are buying a pair for themselves, and they're standing back there on their cell phone getting the sizes of friends or relatives."

Polk's operation, which includes an online store, is selling up to a hundred pairs of Crocs a day on weekends, more in mid-summer. In August, actress Jennifer Garner, who was shooting a movie on the Pearl Street Mall, made a well-publicized purchase of sixteen pairs; within hours, the lemmings came out in force. "We sold 300 pair out of this one store the next day," Polk recalls. "That's a lot of anything."

Since soft shoes wear out quicker, one might suppose that a significant percentage of sales involve replacements, but the company website teems with heartfelt testimonials regarding the durability of the shoe -- as well as gushing accounts of how they've saved people's feet, tempers and marriages, if not their dignity. Polk still has his first Crocs from three years ago; the tread is gone, but he uses them as house slippers. "You wouldn't want to wear them on a snowy day," he says, "but I haven't been able to kill a pair."

By keeping its prices relatively low, Crocs hasn't simply boosted sales volume; it's also made it tougher for knockoffs to enter the field. There are several imitators of Crocs on the market now, including Nothinz ($24.99, diamond-shaped holes) and Airwalks ($14.99 at Payless). The price difference doesn't appear to be significant enough to attract legions of defectors. But that could change, as vendors disgruntled with a delay in filling orders start stocking the competition.

The company has had trouble keeping up with demand, and that's left many small specialty retailers feeling slighted. Even loyalists who chalk up the inventory problems to "growing pains" have had their patience tested. "We've had months when we could not get our orders filled," says Jennifer Boone, one of the owners of Paragon Sports in Evergreen. "It's been hard to get hold of anybody to get a real answer. We just got a large shipment, our first in four months."

Boone has resorted to putting customers on waiting lists. "Going forward, they're going to have to make some decisions and prioritize their market," she says of Crocs. "Their hospital stores and their kiosks seem to be stocked. But for the outdoor retailers, it's been a bit frustrating. I think it's a common mistake that a lot of small companies make -- going in too many directions and not focusing on your initial market. We're confident that, over the long haul, they will correct this."

Amanda Shannahan, who works for a public-relations firm that represents Crocs, says the company "has significantly increased production to meet demand and implemented new shipping procedures to ensure quick delivery." (Efforts to get the inside story from Crocs got me bounced to the company's PR people, who handed me off to their PR people.)

Polk isn't worried about supply. The higher prices the company is commanding for its newer models, including the top-of-the-line Islander, don't worry him, either; he believes those prices reflect the "intellectual value" of the product and are closer to what the market will truly bear. He's just happy to get the new lines into his stores.

"Every time they introduce something, it's immediately so popular that it's just absorbed by the market," he says. "I think they're going to catch up with it. I can understand that some people are unhappy about waiting on orders for hundreds of pairs. We're fortunate because we started with them so early. But we're waiting on orders of thousands of pairs."

After a dizzying tour of Crocs outlets, the Shoe Goddess and I stop at a mall restaurant to regroup. I tuck my navy-clad clown feet into the darkest corner of the booth, as if hiding some hideous deformity.

Nothing escapes the Shoe Goddess, who sees no reason for my shame. "Can't you have a pair of fun shoes?" she asks.

"I feel so vulnerable," I say.

Part of my anxiety is the sheer nothingness of the shoe. It's big yet flimsy, a cartoonish shell of a shoe, an unfinished idea. I am not prone to twitches, but the more I think about it, the more I begin to dread a sudden muscle spasm that will send one flying off my foot like an Elam extra-point try, sailing into the jerk-chicken pizza at the booth across the aisle.

"I think they should branch out into hats, shaped to fit your head," the Shoe Goddess says. "Like the one in F Troop that folds back. You'd have to pay extra for one without holes."

I sigh. "The emperor has no shoes," I say.

She tries to be consoling. "You could water-ski on them," she says. "They're big. And they float."

They do. Crocs recently donated 15,000 pairs of its shoes to Hurricane Katrina victims. They might prove quite useful by the weakened levees of New Orleans.

"If they were really smart," she continues, "they'd put sports insignia on them. You could buy a pair with a Broncos emblem on the strap button. Can you imagine the powerful sell that would be?"

She's remarkably upbeat, given that her own quest for Crocs has been thwarted. Or maybe she's just relieved that I'm the one who got stuck trying out a pair, not her. This gets me wondering what these soft slabs will do to my lower extremities over time. Will they mold to my feet, as the company claims, or will my feet expand to fit the shoe, turning into giant, club-shaped flippers?

I call up Thomas Shonka, a podiatrist who works with top athletes in Boulder and is a past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. I don't know quite how to express my flipper concerns, so I start out asking him what he thinks about Crocs.

"I'm wearing a pair right now," he says. "The surgical clogs that have been in use for years tend to have a stiffer midsole and a little bit sturdier construction. But I use these in my home for the hardwood floors we have."

Shonka hastens to add that he's more comfortable talking about "clog-type shoes" in general, since he doesn't want to appear to be endorsing or dissing a particular brand. He knows athletes who have "a shopping bag of orthotics" and sometimes slip on a clog-type shoe (such as Crocs) for some relief. Obviously, clog-type shoes (Crocs, for example) aren't appropriate for serious running, hiking, climbing or other vigorous exercise, but they can be a welcome change from more heavily structured shoes, and he's unaware of any rash of injuries as a result of the trend toward more casual footwear (e.g., Crocs).

"But," he adds, "there's no data from assessment of this type of shoe, whether it's beneficial or detrimental. In the days of Earth Shoes, there was a proportional increase in the number of spontaneous Achilles tendon ruptures because of the negative-heel concept."

The Earth Shoe hucksters made a number of claims about the "natural" benefits of a negative heel. These days, Shonka is less concerned about ultra-casual clogs (Crocs) than he is about a similar trend in the athletic-shoe industry -- the push toward flimsier shoes that are supposed to give you a more natural running experience.

"This trend to go to a minimalist construction -- a minimal sole, back to nature -- I don't know where that's going," Shonka says. "I would not be recommending that to runners unless I see data that supports its use. It just goes against 25 years of experience with running injuries."

As for clog-type shoes -- including, yes, Crocs -- it appears that some foot types require more stability than an extruded shell of proprietary closed-cell resin can offer. "The majority of the population would be comfortable in a shoe like this at given times," Shonka says carefully. "But it's not a shoe for everyone. Parents shouldn't let their kids play sports in Crocs, and there are many people who have a variety of foot pathologies who wouldn't be candidates for a shoe like this."

I knew it. My problem with Crocs isn't just a case of mismatched temperaments. It's pathological.

Celebrity chef Mario Batali is on the Food Network's Iron Chef America, whipping up something that looks like a pizza-dough-and-butter sandwich. Sweating mightily over his ingredients, with unruly hair pulled back in a ponytail and a stubble of beard the color of diced carrots, Batali is the quintessence of active casual. His ample stomach strains against his dark denim tunic. In the long shots, he looks like a giant blueberry bobbing around the kitchen.

One online bio proudly trumpets Batali's fondness for shorts ("acceptable attire for every season"), but his footwear is equally notorious. On tonight's program he's shod in what appear to be a pair of orange Crocs, but are probably ultra-hip Italian clogs that cost as much as a dinner for four at one of his swank Manhattan eateries.

Batali's challenger tonight is Todd English, a product of more conventional grooming. He is clean-shaven, clad in the traditional white chef's outfit, and has his coiffure under control. Of course he loses the cooking contest. In the age of the active casual, the slob in shorts and orange plastic shoes is king.

What a chef wears in his own kitchen is, I suppose, his business (although the thought of Batali's footwear going into the dishwasher next to the silverware makes me queasy). But since I've been trying out my Crocs, I've started seeing them everywhere: in theaters and at fine dining establishments, at art openings and on television. The shoe may have its B list of celebrity devotees -- Graham Nash, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Garner and her main squeeze, Ben "Kiss of Death" Affleck -- but there are also plenty of fashionistas decrying the whole plastic-shoe fad and hoping it will go away soon.

Crocs are the latest atrocity to be added to Manolo the Shoe Blogger's "Gallery of the Horrors," a collection of some of the ugliest shoes of all time (www.shoeblogs.com/horrors.html). They're right up there with Uggs ("The only peoples who should be wearing this boot are the preteen girls who love the Hello Kitty"), the Birkenstock Boston ("looks like it was put together by the blind medieval monks, for wear by the peasants of the mud") and the Dansko Teton ("glorified, heavy-duty house slippers"). But Manolo seems particularly offended by the popular rationale for Crocs, since it implies that style and comfort are incompatible: "Why must the 'comfort' always be the war cry of those who would lead us into the bad shoes?"

The fashion mavens' aversion to Crocs isn't merely an aesthetic problem for the company. If, as Manolo suggests, Crocs are a bad idea that should be discarded on the ash-heap of shoe history, if they are the next Uggs, then that makes the effort to take the company public a bit gamier than the usual IPO. Among the "risk factors" Crocs notes in its SEC filings are the company's relatively short history, its reliance on a small product line -- and the fickleness of the shoe-buying public. "Given the limited history of our Crocs brand, it is especially difficult to evaluate whether our products will hold long-term consumer appeal," the company notes.

Crocs hopes to demonstrate sustainability by introducing new products. But aside from the rainboot, a worthy successor to Uggs, the "new" lines coming out this fall are all variations on the base design of the Beach, the model that accounts for more than 80 percent of the company's shoe sales. (The new Aspen model, debuting exclusively at Dillard's this week, is a redo of the no-holes Highland.)The company found its niche in double-wide, ultra-light gunboats, and no amount of tinkering with the ventilation ports or the nubbins on the footbed is going to change that. The niche is its glory and its doom.

Skeptics have suggested that Crocs is putting together a stock offering right at the time its success has crested, as a way for the founders and the venture capitalists to cash in. "Unless Russia or Japan or China or someplace else in the world suddenly thinks that Crocs are really cool, their market penetration is over," opines Denver entrepreneur Dee Rambeau on his blog. "This isn't Google, mind you...that has become a ubiquitous part of our culture and actually has a repeatable business model. Nor is it Reebok, that has been around for 50 years and just sold to Adidas for three billion [dollars]. No...this is a start-up manufacturer of silly, faddish, plastic shoes."

Rambeau says he tried on a pair of Crocs once but found them "pretty ugly." He won't be investing in the stock. "This is clearly the VCs taking the money out," he says. "It seems very much like a dot-com offering, the kind we haven't seen recently. These days you have to prove out real value, and it doesn't seem to me they have demonstrated the kind of historic revenue stream to support that kind of offering. But that's just my opinion, and they probably don't care what I think."

Defenders of the brand believe that the Crocs phenomenon is far from over. The Pedestrian Shops' Polk points out that the company keeps finding ways to tap into new markets while expanding its base. Last spring it introduced Crocs in children's sizes, and they were an immediate hit. "That's huge," he says. "Kids don't have to tie their shoes. It's very empowering, and they love that. They love being like their older brothers or their parents in the fashion. They're maniacs."

The latest demographic to discover Crocs, he adds, is seniors. They, too, like shoes that are easy to put on and get off, especially given the range of foot complaints dogging the golden years. Initially resistant to the craze, they've since offered Polk some of the most stirring testimonials he's heard about what a "godsend" Crocs are. (Thank God for the pearl-white ones.)

"Ultimately you might saturate a market, but the world's a big place," Polk says. "Crocs may slow down here, and that might affect me in Boulder, but these guys have hundreds of millions of dollars of shoes to sell before they hit the saturation point.

"It would be foolish to say I know this has legs. Nobody knows anything. Look, I made a huge inventory investment. If this thing slowed down, I wouldn't have dollars for retirement -- I'd have Crocs on the wall. But I don't think it's going to slow down. What sets it apart from those other fads is that it's so broad. It's like Beanie Babies for all generations. I'm not aware of any product like that, at least in the footwear industry."

Oh, they're special -- yes, indeed. I'll spare you the wretched details of my ongoing dysfunctional relationship with my Crocs. Instead, allow me to offer a few tips for fellow Croc rookies:

Avoid walking on dewy, freshly cut grass, unless you want the wet grass to sluice efficiently into your shoes.

Extremely thick socks can mitigate that over-wide, empty feeling, but they also negate the ventilation and anti-sweat features.

They feel great after a five-hour hike up, down and around Mount Bierstadt in stiff boots -- but then, a pair of fuzzy bunny slippers would feel great under those circumstances, too. So would Beanie Babies.

And, whatever else you do, don't take your complaints to the Shoe Goddess. She has lost all interest in Crocs. The last time I brought up the subject, she dismissed it with a wave of her hand.

"I'm over it," she said. "Let's talk cowboy boots."

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